The Cellist of Sarajevo/ A Fly in the Ointment


[An edited version of this article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, April 2013.]


Conflict, both external and internal, is a major theme in the two titles this month.

In Galloway’s international bestseller, to cross the street is to risk being shot by a sniper and in Fine’s lies and double-dealing becomes a woman’s second nature. Both books are largely set in drab, run-down places where instinct is in great demand.

Sarajevo is a besieged city where the residents scuttle like beetles around streets that are being bombed to bits by “the men on the hills.” The three characters that we follow in their daily lives are battling their own particular doubts and fears as much as they are struggling to merely survive continual bullets and shells.

Dragan is a reclusive, solitary baker who still must somehow get to his workplace. Kenan thinks of himself as a civilian coward even though his repeated attempts to cross the city to get water for his family (and a selfish neighbour) are as dangerous as anyone elses. Arrow, as she calls herself, is a counter-sniper who is given an assignment to protect the life of the young, single-minded musician of the title.

Their problems are captured in the most humane of ways and even though the true religious and ethnic reasons for the war are never mentioned, we come to understand the depth of destruction that has been done and what it means for those who have to endure the futile grind of a devastated, once-great city.

In “Fly in the Ointment” the dangers are less physical (at least most of the time), but the psychological scars of personal tragedy are equally clear to see. In this very English of stories, Lois is a mother who faces a string of ethical questions in her life and largely chooses the dishonest options. She wants to somehow make-up for her perceived failures as a mother (and a wife) but doesn’t quite want to try doing this in an ethical way.

Having trapped herself in a tangle of deceit, Lois knows that (as Bob Dylan put-it) “the past was close behind” and the squalid existence she has set-up from her own self-constructed "necessity" is put in doubt. Every move she makes is a calculated one, and despite the likelihood that she might evoke pity and even sympathy in some, it is her taste for manipulation that makes her so unappealing throughout the devious scheming that gives this story much of it’s plot-lines.

Like so many British books, this is a tale strongly related to social-class, though the author and many UK readers would probably not want to recognise it.



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